Outsider Tritt focuses on integrity in sheriff's race

August 06, 2006|By JUSTIN FENTON | JUSTIN FENTON,SUN REPORTER

By the time David E. Tritt Jr. appeared before the Harford County deputy sheriff's union, most knew that the 32-year-old was an office supply company manager with no law enforcement experience who wanted to become the agency's top official.

Left unsaid was why he thought he had a chance to win. There were three declared candidates that night in April set to pitch their candidacy to the union, and Tritt was sandwiched between the sheriff and a top commander. They scribbled tough questions on note cards, waiting to hear how the outsider would field them.

Tritt impressed some that night with his platform of integrity and accountability, pledging to counter what he said was a lack of leadership in the agency and showing a surprising grasp of certain issues. Some deputies have since said that they admired his willingness to challenge the incumbent, whose re-election campaign was moving ahead at the time.

Since then, first-term Sheriff R. Thomas Golding has dropped out of the race, and the field of potential replacements has swelled. But Tritt, a Forest Hill resident and father of eight, remains a vocal advocate of change in the agency's culture, keeping the issues he has raised alive even if he remains a long shot.

"I certainly feel with Dave's character and his integrity that there's a place in law enforcement for him," said Joe Price, another Republican candidate who has spent 28 years with the Maryland State Police.

Though sheriffs throughout the state are elected, inexperienced candidates often have to overcome steep odds. There is no sheriff in Maryland who does not have previous law enforcement experience. In Harford, all five of Tritt's opponents in the Republican primary have extensive law enforcement backgrounds.

In most Maryland counties, including Harford, the sheriff's office is the primary police agency. The sheriff holds a partisan position decided by the voters every four years, and few in recent years have won office without a substantial resume of police work.

Allegany County voters elected such a candidate in 1990, when Gary W. Simpson won by a 2-to-1 margin with a background that included military service and work in the trucking industry. But four years later, deputies were frustrated with the way he was handling the budget and staffing issues. David A. Goad, a deputy who had lost in the Democratic primary when Simpson was elected, decided to challenge him.

"We'd say, repeatedly, `This isn't the way you do it,'" recalled Goad, who won by 1,500 votes that year and has served three terms.

Despite the Allegany example, Goad thinks candidates from outside law enforcement can be successful as sheriff. Another candidate in Harford, Democrat Terry W. Serago, lacks experience but has yet to muster much support.

"It's like running a business," Goad said. "You're involved with procurement and staffing issues. If they have the ability, aptitude, and feel for law enforcement and law-abiding people, I wouldn't sell an outsider short. But it's not typical."

Before dropping out of the race, Golding had called Tritt's criticism unwarranted. Many think Tritt has also had a hand in a Web site that purports to express "insider views" of the county's GOP politics, which has championed Tritt's candidacy from its inception, even when he was largely unknown.

Though a poll circulating among Republicans shows him barely mustering 8 percent of the primary vote, an interactive poll on the site had him favored by 42 percent.

Tritt denies he is involved with the site and said his campaign work has been grass-roots. Much of his interaction with patrol deputies has been at the local convenience store, he said.

Tritt said his family go through five to six gallons of milk a week. And that means plenty of trips to the Wawa, where he said he frequently bumped into patrol deputies and started to build an understanding of the agency.

"If I see deputies, I come up and introduce myself," said Tritt. "Most of them now know my name, but I'm trying to meet them all."

Tritt's wife, Beverly, said her husband has eyed being a part of a sheriff's office since they met at age 15.

In 2004, he decided he wanted to run one. Tritt said he felt Golding mishandled discipline of a sheriff's office captain who was pulled over for drunken driving.

Recent headlines have painted an agency in turmoil, a bitter union election fought over the direction of the agency. Golding, a 30-year veteran, was appointed in 2004 after Joseph P. Meadows stepped down amid a sexual harassment lawsuit.

Golding decided to withdraw his re-election bid in the spring soon after claims surfaced of electioneering on his behalf by a member of his command staff.

The state prosecutor's office later found no evidence of criminal wrongdoing, but Tritt has been vocal about is displeasure with the agency's leadership.

"A big part of what's going on is that there's no accountability to the public," he said.

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